A marriage falls apart in 1970s Montana.
Laura is angry. Her husband, Ed, a behavioral psychiatrist, has taken a position as superintendent of a mental institution in Boulder, Montana, forcing their move from Michigan, where she was pursuing her career as an artist. She is angry, too, because he works all the time; she feels ignored; and, worse, he is obsessed with one patient, Penelope, a beautiful, intelligent 16-year-old epileptic. Angry, jealous wife; workaholic, sexually voracious husband; tempting young woman: Reeves (Work Like Any Other, 2016) plays out this well-worn triangle in chapters that shift between Laura’s first-person narration and a third-person narration that's close to Ed's perspective, arriving at a twist that finally moves the novel beyond cliché to become a sensitive examination of love, responsibility, and compassion. Ed, who frequents prostitutes for “simple pleasures and anonymity,” is stereotypically self-absorbed. Laura espouses a familiar plaint, tearfully admitting to feeling “lonely and trapped and so angry and then so sad, and he couldn’t see that I was disappearing, that I needed him.” Struggling to define herself, she secretly takes a job at a clothing boutique; when she becomes pregnant, she keeps that a secret, too, for four months. “Why the hell did it take you so long to notice?” she asks angrily when Ed finally does notice, as they are having sex in a locked classroom at the hospital. Trying to make Laura feel validated, Ed convinces her to teach art to some patients—and against her objections insists that Penelope take the class. Predictably, the girl proves to be impressively talented, producing, Laura sees, “an artist’s sketch, as good as anything I could do,” and intensifying her jealousy. Ed, innovating a policy of deinstitutionalizing high-functioning patients, sends Penelope back to her disgruntled parents, precipitating a crisis that changes his life and her own. The biggest change, though, is Ed’s fate, forcing the man who has only observed suffering to find himself—and Laura—at its vortex.
A predictable plot reveals emotional complexities.